Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Foucault on Clausewitz: Conceptualizing the Relationship between War and Power

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Foucault on Clausewitz: Conceptualizing the Relationship between War and Power

Article excerpt

War is only a branch of political activity.

Karl von Clausewitz

Pathology is no more than a branch, a result, a complement of physiology, or rather, physiology embraces the study of vital actions at all stages of the existence of living things.

Jean Begin

The art of war is like that of medicine, murderous and conjectural.

Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire

Michel Foucault is well known as a theorist of power. Less established is his engagement with the theory of strategy and war. His interest in these concepts became apparent only toward the end of his career. discipline and Punish, for example, partially examines the emergence of the art of military tactics in the eighteenth century, largely within French military-strategic thought. (1) His final work, The History of Sexuality, sees him attempt to develop a theory of the relation between war and power as well as the concept of a "strategy of power." Close to death, Foucault declared, "If God grants me life, after madness, illness, crime, sexuality, the last thing that I would like to study would be the problem of war and the institution of war in what one could call the military dimension of society." (2)

These intentions were apparent also in the breadth of questions raised in Foucault's 1975-1976 course lectures at the College de France. At that point, Foucault posed the question of whether warfare is the general model of all social relations. What is the relationship, he asked, between the discourses of war and strategy and the organization of modern power? This article acts as a response to both of those questions. As Paul Rabinow has argued, pursuing these lines of inquiry allows us to address some important questions in relation to the genesis of modern military-strategic thought. Why, for instance, modern military strategic theory formed along the lines that it did. Why, in particular, Carl von Clausewitz thought about strategy in the seminal terms that he did as a conjunction between war and politics. (3)

The naming of Clausewitz in this context is crucial. In his essay "Governmentality," Foucault identifies a relationship between the emergence of Clausewitz's theory of strategy and the shift in the organization of power that occurred in the early modern era. (4) For Foucault, the importance of Clausewitz's theory of strategy extended far beyond the domain of the practice of war and statecraft. The conjunctive relation of war to politics, by which Clausewitz defines the art of strategy, was significant for Foucault in its representation of the basic principle upon which the strategic model of power operates within modern societies. That is to say, as far as Foucault was concerned, Clausewitz's theory did not apply primarily to war or practices of states in relation to other states. Its primary significance was its outline of the principle upon which a new form of political power had emerged, that which he sometimes called "governmentality." Thus, it applied primarily to the ways in which the relations between states and populations changed with the birth of the modern era. Outlining the importance of that relation is largely the task addressed by this article.

Surprisingly, contemporary strategic theorists have largely ignored the interest of Foucault in Clausewitz's work. That is because the concept of strategy still tends to be defined within the domain of strategic studies as a form of instrumental rationality by which the relationship between means and ends is calculated to advance the interests of states and other actors. Obviously, Foucault's work is not amenable to the planning, waging, or winning of wars. He does provide, however, one of the most acute and influential studies of the workings and execution of strategic power of the late modern era. That said, he has tended to attract the attention of scholars concerned with providing a critical analytic of power, rather than with refining its strategic efficacy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.